Shannon Miller and her son. Photo: Liliane Hakim Photography
In January 2011, Olympic gold medalist, Shannon Miller, 35, went to the OB/GYN for a routine screening. “I went for a pre-baby exam because my husband and I wanted to start trying to have another child,” she says. Instead of being told to stock up on prenatal vitamins and foods with folic acid, Miller received news that set her off on a path she never imagined she'd need to navigate.
“The doctor told me I had a cyst on my ovary. I went in with the mindset of taking stock of things, getting on vitamins and making plans for a new baby. Suddenly all of those plans were halted. The doctor told me not to do anything, including exercise, because he didn’t want to tumor to rupture,” says Miller.
Miller says she didn’t know much about ovarian cysts. “It wasn’t something I ever thought about or researched.”
Her doctor tried to dissuade any fears, telling Miller ovarian cysts are common. “He told me they come and go all the time so we would observe mine for 4 to 6 weeks, thinking the cyst would probably go away. However, he also consulted with a gynecologic oncologist and suggested I go in for an in-office ultrasound just for look,” she says.
On January 4, 2011, Miller and her husband received what they thought was good news. “The oncologist told me that we’d observe the tumor for a little bit before deciding to have surgery. But I didn’t want to wait. I had something in me and I wanted it out. I was relieved when we made plans for the surgery because it felt like I was doing something to regain control.”
Post-surgery, Miller learned the tumor, the size of a baseball, was a rare, germ cell cancerous tumor.
“It was caught at an early stage, 1A. We might not have found it so early if I wasn’t thinking of trying to get pregnant again,” she says.
Initially, the surgeon told Miller and her husband that it appeared all the cancer had been removed. “They said my margins looked good,” she says. Two weeks later, lab reports told a different tale.
“Because of the type of cancer, it was recommended that I undergo a nine-week course of chemotherapy. That was my best chance of non-reoccurrence. “
Before the laparotomy (an abdominal surgical procedure) to remove the tumor, Miller was told the doctors might need to remove one or both of her ovaries as well as her uterus, rendering her infertile.
“Suddenly, my husband and I had to have the discussion that if the tumor spread or was cancerous—since we didn’t know it was at the time—how aggressive did we want the surgeon to be? Do we want to try to salvage my fertility or do a hysterectomy? That was a tough discussion, but we already had one son who was 15 months old at the time, so we knew we had to do everything and be as aggressive as necessary because I had to be here for him. That made it clear for both of us,” she says.
When she woke from surgery, in the recovery room Miller learned the surgeon needed to remove her left ovary and fallopian tube.
“We thought that was good news, that we’d still have a chance to conceive after I had proper time to heal. But when we found out about the chemo, which can affect fertility, we figured another baby just wasn’t going to be part of our plan.”
Today, two years and two days after her surgery, Miller has a lot to smile about. She’s 16 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child. “We weren’t sure if we could ever have another child and feel very blessed and excited,” she says.
Miller says she and her husband set having another baby to the side. "Getting through nine weeks of chemo and the next year recovering took all our time and effort."
After a year, they talked to her oncologist who advised them to wait a minimum of one year post-chemo to make sure Miller was strong enough to carry a child and that any residual chemicals were out of her system. "We waited a year and then got the green light to try. We were prepared to not conceive naturally. We had preserved some of my eggs between the surgery and chemo and we thought there's no pressure. If it happens OK, if not, that's OK," she says.
Two months later, Miller conecieved naturally...and ironically, is once again battling a familar foe: nausea.
“It was tough when I was sick two years ago because of chemo,” says Miller. But these days she almost relishes feeling nauseous since it’s caused by morning sickness.
“It’s so hard when you feel so bad to consider getting up and working out, but exercising actually helps with nausea. And it's a good reason to be sick, we're having the baby I never thought was possible,” says Miller.
She calms her queasy stomach by walking, swimming or putting some time in on the elliptical. “I swim twice a week when my son is in swim class,” she says.
Miller’s message to all women is do not delay your physicals and recommended screenings. “Don’t cancel things like physicals and screenings. Just go in and do it because early detection can absolutely save your life,” she says.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the risks of developing ovarian cancer increase with age. And having children appears to cut the risk. The NIH says the more children a woman has and the earlier in life she gives birth, the lower her risk for ovarian cancer. Genetics is also a factor; women who carry either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are at a slightly higher risk for ovarian cancer. Women with a personal history of breast cancer or a family history of breast or ovarian cancer have an increased risk for ovarian cancer.
Ovarian cancer symptoms are often vague but the NIH cautions you should see your doctor if you have the following symptoms for more than a few weeks:
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